Editor’s note: This is a re-posting of one of my favorite posts from the early days of Beyond The Breakwater. First published in 2007
Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to do a little trout fishing in the Eastern Sierras. The last time we visited this area was over 10 years ago, so we were really looking forward to reacquainting ourselves with one of the best places in the world to be outdoors. This is a travelogue of sorts, not a hard-core BTB article, but we hope you enjoy it anyway!

At the end of March, I received an e-mail that began with:

“John, Congratulations! You have won an award(s)…”

Bishop California - gateway to the Eastern SierrasNormally, I would have filed this e-mail along with the other 172 similar messages I receive daily from Uganda and Eastern Europe. In this case, however, the sender was Jack Holder, past President of the Outdoor Writer’s Association of California, and Chairman of OWAC’s 2006 Awards Committee. Since I had submitted our sister site, Ocean Skiff Journal, as an entry in OWAC’s “Best Website of 2006 ” competition, I was hoping to get some sort of message like this…but his e-mail didn’t tell me exactly what I had won, and I have to admit that I was too chicken to ask.

The awards ceremony was part of OWAC’s Spring Conference, which was being held at the end of April (Trout Season Opener!) in the town of Bishop. For those of you unfamiliar with California geography, Bishop is in Inyo County, on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a great location for reaching all sorts of prime trout water, including the Owens River, Lake Crowley, Convict Lake, Pleasant Valley Reservoir, and many other smaller streams and lakes.

And as part of a “get to know us” program put on by the Bishop Chamber of Commerce, OWAC conference participants could sign up for day trips showcasing the wide variety of outdoor activities available in the area. The list of excursions included a day of guided fly fishing, an Owens River float trip, rock climbing, and ATV rides, to name a few.

The only problem was that the trip logistics didn’t look like they would work out for me. Bishop is a 6 hour drive from my home in Vista (northern San Diego County), and has no commercial airline service. The week prior to the conference I was going to be on a business trip up in LA, and would be living out of a suitcase. Plus I hadn’t been “real” trout fishing in well over 12 years (not counting fishing for stockers with the kids), so I was going to be a bit rusty. Waders? Buried somewhere in the garage. Trout rod? The smallest fly rod I had out was an 8 wt. with a T-14 shooting head, although I was pretty sure I had a 5 weight in a tube somewhere.

Still…the whole package sounded pretty tempting, so in the end, I decided to make the trip. Besides, I was curious. Before the kids were born, my wife and I used to pass through Bishop quite often, on our way to the Mammoth and June Mountain ski areas. But we hadn’t been out that way in over 10 years. What had changed? What had stayed the same?

Stranger in a Strange Land - Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon, Highway 14, North of Lancaster.

The answers came shortly after I merged onto Highway 395, the main road to Bishop. In previous trips, my wife and I had found a number of restaurants that we liked along 395, plus several landmarks or scenic spots that we enjoyed.

Ten years later, many of those restaurants and businesses were gone. In some cases they had been replaced by new shops, but in many cases, only an empty storefront remained. A sign of tough economic times, it felt a bit like returning to the neighborhood where you grew up, only to find that many of your friends had died or moved away.


On the other hand, the magnificent scenery had not changed. The lava flows and cinder cones of the lower Owens Valley, the stark majesty of Mount Whitney and the Palisades, the graceful peaks of the White Mountains – they were all just as I remembered them, albeit a little short of snow. And in a moral victory against crass commercialism, the number of billboards outside of Independence looked about the same as 10 years ago…

Stranger in a Strange Land - Lower Owens River

Lower Owens River.

I pulled into Bishop late Saturday afternoon, and checked into OWAC conference headquarters – the newly renovated La Quinta Inn on Main Street. The motel was great – centrally located, with clean rooms that were nicely appointed. Easy access from the parking lot, free wireless internet, and a free breakfast.

After cleaning up a bit, I headed down to Brock’s, a fly fishing store that was a fixture in Bishop the last time I passed through, and amazingly, was still in business. A half hour later, I left armed with a handful of #18 Parachute Adams, some elk hair caddis, a couple of Rio 9′ 6x tapered leaders, and directions to some spots along the Owens River near town. Time for a little trouting warmup before dinner.

I wish I could say I performed like a well-oiled fishing machine, but that would be a gross exaggeration at best. Consider this example: after struggling for five minutes to tie a fly onto my leader (damn, where did I put those reading glasses?), I managed to lose the fly on my very first cast. Losing a fly on the first cast is bad enough, but what made this incident particularly embarassing was that I lost the fly by hanging my backcast in the tree I was standing under. And to top it off, there were only a couple of trees in that entire section of the river.

But, as the saying goes, “God watches after fools and fishermen”, and since I seemed to qualify in both categories at the moment, He provided some extra help. After I finally managed to tie on another fly, my third cast to a fallen treebranch resulted in a nice 10″ brown trout that was foolish enough to rise to the Parachute Adams. After a short, but spirited, tussle I removed the hook and let him (or her) go to fight again.

Stranger in a Strange Land - Lower Owens River

Another view from the Lower Owens

I fished until dark, diligently working my way upstream, doing my best to pretend like I knew what I was doing. But not another fish was suicidal enough to attack my fly, so I ended my warmup session with just a single trout. And a small hole on the right shin of my waders, which wound up flooding my rubber pants. I must have gotten them caught on a branch or barbed wire somewhere, despite my best efforts…but it was nothing that a little Aquaseal couldn’t handle. And the cool water was actually pretty refreshing.

Sunday was tied up with OWAC workshops and presentations (this was, after all, a business conference), a reception at the Mountain Light Gallery (which carries works by the late Galen and Barbara Rowell), and of course, the Awards Dinner, where OSJ was fortunate enough to win the “Best Website of 2006” award (hoo-ray!). Maybe next year this website will do as well…

On Monday, those of us sober enough to get out of bed in a timely fashion gathered in Bishop Park to meet our guides for the day trip. I was signed up for the fly fishing trip, of course, which was being hosted by guide Fred Rowe, with assistance from Mark Rosen and Perry Jenkins. Fred made the call to fish the Owens River in an area called the Chalk Bluffs, which are a couple of miles further upstream from where I fished on Saturday, and are just below the wild trout section of the Owens.

Bruce Ajari works a run on the Lower Owens

Bruce Ajari works a run on the Lower Owens.

We were assigned two-to-a-guide, and my partner was Bruce Ajari, a Truckee resident, and columnist with the Sierra Sun. Bruce and I were assigned to fish with Perry, but since Bruce is an experienced trout fisherman, Perry spent most of his time giving me an Owens River tutorial.

Perry started by having me use one of his Sage graphite rods, instead of my aging Fisher glass stick. The rod was rigged with a #18 midge nymph tied to an 8′ 6X leader, with split shot and an “indicator float” (AKA a “bobber” ).

The technique for fishing this setup was pretty simple – upstream casts; drag-free dead-drift (mend line if needed); strike when the indicator hesitates or goes under. The trick is to get the fly right on the bottom, which usually calls for some careful adjustment of the split shot and leader length. But Perry had everything dialed in perfectly for the Owens’ flow rate.

Now I realize that there are many purists who would say this is not real “fly fishing”, but hey – I normally fish leadcore shooting heads with 5″ streamers and a 6′ level leader, so what would I know about “pure” fly fishing? In my view, it’s all fun, and it turned out to be a very effective technique. In the 5 hours that we fished, I had many strikes, hooked around a dozen fish, and landed 6 up to 12 inches or so.

Offshore, we would call that “making bait”, but for a novice trout fisherman, that’s a respectable haul. And it was due, in no small part, to Perry’s expertise, coaching and patience. Not only was I using his gear, he put me in the right spots, showed me where the fish were holding, changed flies when needed, and landed the fish. He even helped me to place and work the cast – “Up a little farther”, “to the left a little more”, “mend some line”.

Perry Jenkins working a stretch of the Lower Owens

Perry Jenkins working a stretch of the Lower Owens

All of which underscores a point I try to make to anyone fishing a new area – a good guide is a tremendous way to shortcut the learning process. This is true not only in the saltwater / offshore world, but also inland. If you have a limited amount of time to fish, booking a guide for even a half day can easily pay for itself by putting you on to fish early, teaching you the best ways to fish the current conditions, and what gear to use. A good guide can also help correct your casting faults, and will usually wind up showing you a really neat trick or two, if you keep your eyes and ears open.

Perry’s pearl: if you have locking hemostats for unhooking fish, use the hemostats to hold the fly when tying it to your leader. Using the hemostats to hold the fly serves two purposes: first, they get your fat fingers clear of the eye of the hook, so it’s easier to thread the leader, and second, it’s much easier to hang on to the hemostats than to a #18 midge nymph. And if you happen to drop the fly, having the hemostats attached makes the fly easy to find.

On Tuesday morning it was time to pack up and head south. I was looking forward to getting home. I had been gone for 10 days – the longest hiatus from parenting that I’d taken since the kids were born – and I missed the family. But before I left Bishop, I had to make one last stop – Mahogany Smoked Meats, which is on Highway 395 on the north end of Bishop. In business since 1922, they make the best beef jerky I have ever tasted. If you like beef or turkey jerky, you’ve got to stop there when you visit Bishop. It’s a little pricey, but you won’t be sorry. I bought a half-pound each of their teriyaki and habanero seasoned jerky for the trip home, and hit the road.

Six hours later, I was back in Vista. Various and sundry bugs decorated the windshield and grill of the Montero, and the interior held a collection of empty beverage cups, hamburger wrappers and errant french fries. My trusty Canon 20D was riding shotgun, waiting for that “decisive moment” shot that never came, and my back hurt, despite setting the lumbar support to “Max”. One stop for gas, and no speeding tickets. All in all, a good road trip.

As I opened the car door, the kids ran out to greet me, and Carol was waiting inside. I walked by the boat, sitting silently on the trailer. I could tell it wanted to get out on the water, but that would have to wait until next week.

For more information on fly fishing in the Bishop area, contact:

  • Fred Rowe – (760) 873-3948
  • Mark Rosen – Upstream Guide Service, (760) 920-0726
  • Perry Jenkins – (760) 937-7808